Canada's transport minister is sending a special ministerial observer to the scene of the CP Rail derailment and hazardous goods spill northeast of Edmonton amid concerns surrounding the company's use of "remote control" technology to move trains.

The move came after CBC News reported earlier today that the Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether a remote control unit used to move a CP train contributed to the derailment and hazardous liquid spill last week near Edmonton.

In a statement issued this afternoon, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he was "aware of the questions raised by the use of remote controlled train technology, also known as beltpacks."

"I have deployed a Minister's Observer who will keep me informed while the Transportation Safety Board investigates a December 8, 2015 derailment at Scotford Yard near Edmonton. Should the Transportation Safety Board's investigation uncover any concerns, I will not hesitate to take action in order to uphold safety."

The accident happened as CP Rail is pushing ahead with plans to expand its use of "remote control locomotive systems" across Canada, CBC News has learned. The TSB has been looking into the incident from the outset and confirmed to CBC that it wants to determine how big a role the remote technology played in the crash. 

CP Rail crews at Scotford Yard, northeast of the city, were standing on the ground using a "belt pack" to remotely operate the train a week ago Tuesday. Four cars derailed, tipping one and spilling 98,860 litres of styrene, a chemical used in plastics.

Remote control technology — along with crews using the belt packs to operate locomotives while on the ground or while riding — has been approved for use in Canada since the late 1980s. Railways, including CP and CN, use it widely, though almost exclusively inside rail yards to quickly shift cars back and forth as yard crews assemble trains.

However, CBC News has learned that this past year CP told its main union that it will be expanding use of this technology on main tracks in seven areas: Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Welland, Ont., Lethbridge, Alta., Regina and Bredenbury in central Saskatchewan.

The move is part of a cost-cutting effort to replace locomotive engineers with "road service" employees, union officials at the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference were told.  

The company initially proposed either single operator crews, or pairing its more junior employees to work alongside a conductor to use remote control along the main tracks in industrial areas and at sidings where the railway drops off and picks up customer rail cars. It is no longer considering single operators, it told CBC News in an email. 

The Teamsters union is fighting the move, arguing that Canada has absolutely no safety rules to govern use of remote control trains outside the yards.  The union is also expressing concern about how far afield this technology will be deployed given "road service employees," in their contracts, can be assigned to work anywhere within 48 kilometres of a rail yard.

Don Ashley, the TCRC's Ottawa-based national legislative representative, says locomotive engineers have years of experience dealing with heavy loads and complex braking systems, whereas "road switchers" are more junior.

Beltpack

A remote control device for trains, known as a Beltpack. (Transportation Safety Board)

He also said the one involved in last week's Edmonton derailment had only been on the job for month or two.

"Yards are basically controlled environments where the grade is set. When you get outside of yards onto the main line you know there's grades, there's curves, there's crossings," Ashley told CBC News.  

"There's a lot more interaction with the public. I don't think all those things are being properly looked at and considered."

More accidents: U.S. regulator

Ashley also said that the U.S. Federal Railway Administration is studying the issue closely, and in 2006 concluded RCLS can lead to more accidents.

"The FRA study showed there is a 25 per cent increase in incidents with the use of RCLS over conventional crewing operations. That's pretty significant," Ashley said.  "It could be minor, yard incidents, but it's still 25 per cent higher risk or potential risk for something catastrophic."

CP Rail and the union are now in an arbitration fight over the use of remote controlled technology, CP having told the union in a letter last year "there are no operating or regulatory barriers that prevent the use of RCLS in yards or on main track."

In an emailed statement  to CBC News, assistant VP of public affairs Martin Cej wrote that CP has simply "reintroduced RCLS technology into its operations.

"CP has a robust training program for RCLS and for 12 of the last 14 years has been the safest Class 1 railway in North America (according to train accident frequency)," Cej wrote.

CN Rail also calls it a 'safe, proven technology." In its statement to CBC News CN said it has "extensive experience'" using remote control in yards, and using two-person crews at speeds limited to 24 km/hr.

Still, since September, CN rail has reported 12 minor derailments or collisions involving RCLS to safety authorities while CP Rail has reported five.

Past collisions

The Transportation Safety board has investigated other more serious accidents in the past, including a 2007 incident in Winnipeg  where a CN employee was operating a train by remote control while seated in the passenger side of a moving company vehicle.

The employees were monitoring the train through rear-view mirrors when it veered away from them and collided with another outbound train.

In August 2007, in Prince George, B.C., two CN Rail managers were operating a belt pack to pull a train of 53 loaded cars inside a yard. The load got away from them and collided with another train carrying gasoline, causing an explosion and spill involving 172,000 litres of fuel.

The Transportation Safety board concluded the load was too heavy and the managers lacked adequate training to safely use the remote control system.

The FRA study in the U.S. also recommended far greater training and called for 15 mph (24 km/hr)  speed limits and caps of 1,000 feet or about 20 cars on the lengths of any train being operated by remote control.

Transport Canada confirmed to CBC that there currently are no such explicit rules or regulations. Railways are left to decide on their own what is a safe practice using belt packs.

The Canadian Rail Operating Rules, Transport Canada said, state that: "Remote control locomotives in transfer service may only operate on the main track when a qualified operator is equipped with an operative operator controlled unit. Each qualified operator, to a maximum of two, must have an operative OCU.

"There are no additional rules, regulations, or directives specific to the use of remote control locomotives on main track."

The Teamsters' Ashley said he has written Canada's rail safety division demanding a study and new regulations fearing someone could be seriously injured or killed.

"You know in the railway industry there's a lot of rules and regulations that unfortunately have evolved over the years and been written in blood. Basically they are created when there's an incident or accident. I view this as an opportunity for the regulator to get ahead of the curve here and develop some regulations ... before we have more incidents."

Prince George beltpack derailment

A 2007 derailment in Prince George, B.C., attributed to two CN Rail managers operating a belt pack, caused an explosion involving 172,000 litres of fuel. (Transportation Safety Board)